Category Archives: Political

Bread and Puppet Circus

Their bus is parked outside my house, with a big poster promoting their show, “How to Turn Distress into Success,” in its window. Unfortunately, I’m too late for that. It already played. But I do have time for “Everything is Fine Circus.”

I’m still thinking about Rebecca Walker’s Baby Love, and another quote from the article about it.

“[F]or Ms. Walker, being a stepparent or adoptive parent involves a lesser kind of love than the love for a biological child./In an interview, Ms. Walker boiled the difference down to knowing for certain that she would die for her biological child, but feeling ‘not sure I would do that for my nonbiological child.”

Indeed, it is an especially bizarre statement given that in a previous relationship, Walker’s female partner gave birth to a son whom they have raised together. Now that she has a new child, from a relationship with a man, she says about her other son, “The good thing is he has a biological mom who would die for him.” What does this say about fathers? Does their sperm do enough to create a similar connection? I doubt the two mom families I know would distinguish this way between their children.

Is parenthood some sort of bizarre cult of Romeo and Juliet?

I don’t understand how “dying for” your son, or anyone else, is a measure of your love for him. It seems like an empty, melodramatic and self-serving statement, and I hope/doubt she will ever have to live up to it.

I would die for a child of mine, but I would also die for other people’s children. So would my brother-in-law, who’s a police officer. We’ve both risked our lives for other people’s children – although obviously he’s done it more than I have. When I taught kindergarten in Jerusalem, we had to be careful about security. Once after school had ended, as we waited for parents to pick up their kids, a man parked his car on the sidewalk and ran off, right in front of the building. Given where I was, we all immediately assumed the worst. In fact, my ovaries twinged sharply in this weird way they do when I get a scare. The four kids still there all ran to the gate to get a look at the car, and I ran after them, shouting, and knew right then that I would use my body as a shield if it came down to it. I loved those children with a fierceness and I felt an anger at the threat to them like I’d never known.

The other teacher was still inside, and saw it from the window, but couldn’t get out fast enough. Thankfully, the car didn’t explode and I got the children inside, where they stood around confused as we actually threw up into the short little toilets. It turned out to be a recent Russian immigrant’s car, and as I’ve since learned, sidewalks are parking spaces in Russia (in response the fence is now a reinforced cement wall).

That’s as close as I can come to imagining having to “die for” anyone. I can’t imagine very many situations where it would be a conscious rational choice, where we had time to consider. I moved without thought to protect those kids, and I’m just a teacher, not a hero. Walker’s words seem trite to me – “Oh that son of mine, he’s to die for. And so are those shoes.” I don’t know why her description of her love has to be about trumping someone else’s. Utterly unreflective of parental love.

Dear Rebecca Walker

In last week’s Sunday New York Times, the “Sunday Styles” section included two articles that caught my interest (beyond the wedding and engagement announcements which I for some reason have to read first every week). The first article was about an “Easter Dress” sold at the St. Louis Woman’s Exchange for the past fifty years. If we have any more children, they won’t ever dress for Easter, but they might very well wear this dress on another occasion. Especially if we have another son, I want the boys’ version.

The second article, “Evolution of a Feminist Daughter,” was not nearly as fun. Rebecca Walker, the daughter of Alice Walker and Mel Leventhal, has written another book to follow-up on Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, titled Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence. She writes in the book that motherhood is “the first club I’ve unequivocally belonged to.” That’s fine. I wish my own membership hadn’t been revoked. But then she goes on to state in an interview,

You need to plan having a baby like you plan your career….Because we haven’t been told that….I’m supposed to be…this feminist telling them, ‘Go achieve, go achieve.’ And I’m sitting there saying, ‘For me, having a baby has been the most transformational experience of my life.’

Walker has an ambivalent relationship with her own mother – the two are currently estranged. I have benefited from Second Wave Feminism’s emphasis on career and self-fulfillment, but I was not the daughter of two famous public intellectuals. Nor did my mom drag me around the country, resenting me and privileging her own ambitions above my happiness and security. I know perfectly well that my parents sacrificed some of their ambition for us, but I haven’t been plagued by their regret.

Even still, my entire life I have also heard on television that I can have it all – but I didn’t hear it as more than the silly slogan that it is. I’ve never felt it would be easy, or wouldn’t take planning. In fact, I think the emphasis on planning is unfair because it exaggerates our responsibility and ability to influence the future given the current state of medicine, especially obstetrics/gynecology.

If we aren’t told that we have to plan for having a baby, why would searches for “pregnancy” and “motherhood” bring up over 146,000 books on Amazon.com? If you search motherhood, the first book to come up (as of today) will be The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It. Walker is spouting tropes. Watch one day of the View or a few sitcoms and you’ll realize that we are constantly being told about the difficult but life-changing wonders of parenthood. In fact, a few weeks ago while watching the View at the gym, I learned that I won’t be a “real woman” UNTIL I’ve stayed up nights with my sick baby (I didn’t get the feeling that babysitting or sitting with nieces and nephews counts).

It has never been okay for women to forego motherhood. While childlessness no longer makes us automatic suspects of witchery, we have not gone so far as to encourage it. Have you seen the commercials for Dead Silence? The trailer includes these lines from a poem: “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw; she had no children, only dolls. And if you see her, do not scream, or she’ll rip your tongue out at the seam. Women who don’t have children are not an admired demographic.

If I hadn’t known I was supposed to plan for motherhood, I wouldn’t have gone on prenatal vitamins and folic acid 4 months before trying to become pregnant. I wouldn’t have given up alcohol, coffee, soft cheeses and sprouts. Or purchased an armoire, crib, travel crib, “aquarium series” swing, and so on. I don’t regret being conscientious of course, but I wish I had been more prepared for the reality that the most careful planning promises nothing. I am exceptional, I realize, because of my background, education, privilege and medical insurance but Rebecca Walker’s primary audience is the female undergraduate. She is talking to younger versions of me – young women who should get the knowledge they need about pregnancy without this bombardment of information from others about what it does/should mean for them to become a mother. Information that is somehow commercially shallow and reductive.

World Upside Down

For now, I’ve decided to be honest when people ask how I’m doing. I’m not going to burden my local barista or library circulation desk employee with a more dramatic response than, “Fine, thank you.” I am well enough to buy a coffee or check out a book. But for now, friends and colleagues will get the truth. Fortunately, as a grad student, ABD, on a fellowship rather than teaching, I have the privilege of not going out. If the answer to, “How are you?” is going to be, “Bloody awful, thank you,” or, “Barely restraining wails of grief and horror, thanks,” I’ll just be staying in. But if it’s, “okay” or “not too badly,” I might as well say so. And apparently I’ll say it with a smile.

I’ve been reading blogs by other bereaved mothers. It’s a part of my quest to avoid surfing incessantly for information about pre-term labor, and instead to find supportive and engaging sources on the web. I was saddened but somehow encouraged to find that other women experience the feelings of guilt and shame that I do at times. Saddened because I wish no one else had to feel what I feel and because of course they’re not to blame and there’s no need for shame. But encouraged because, well, if other women who’ve done nothing wrong feel like I do, then probably I didn’t either.

It would be nice if we could really know what we’re responsible for in this world. I know what I’m responsible for not doing – violence, for example – and I know what I’m responsible for on a small scale – my cats, husband, taxes, etc., – but on a global scale it’s tougher. We all ask ourselves at some time, I’m sure, whether we ought to pursue a career that has as its explicit purpose helping the world. But it’s not so easy to define what that means.

I have no idea how I’m supposed to respond to suffering. Last year for example, when I was in Moscow, I saw disabled people neglected and mistreated in the most horrifying ways. On my ride to Moscow from the airport, I saw a legless man pushing himself through traffic on a dirty little cart – just a piece of plywood, really, with four wheels, only about 4 inches above the ground. Later, in St. Petersburg, I saw another man, with a terribly mangled face and only stumps for arms and legs dressed in dirty rags, leaned against a wall with a cardboard sign saying he was a veteran and asking for money. Perhaps most upsetting was when we witnessed a man with extremely bowed legs knocked down by a swinging door and people were just stepping over him. We saw him from a distance, and when we got there, only two young people could be bothered to help Josh help him up. I gave many of the disabled panhandlers money (I’ve never cared how beggars use it.), but later a Russian academic told me that disabled beggars are sometimes part of a slave market, and that what I give them will only be taken away. I don’t know if that’s any truer than the idea that all American homeless people will use what I give them for drugs. In fact, I have less knowledge about its accuracy, but it certainly didn’t make me wish I hadn’t given them anything. I do believe, though, that many Russian aid organizations are probably corrupt. So as an American who feels morally invested in disability rights and safety, what is my responsibility once I’m aware of this problem? Honestly, thus far I’ve done nothing. As one person, and not a very wealthy one at that, what am I supposed to do? I feel less wise about my place in the world now than I did ten years ago. I’m not even in control of what I’m responsible for – I could do nothing more than I did for Natan. I was responsible for his welfare, but in the end all I could do was bury him and make sure he is remembered and memorialized. That’s not at all what I wanted but I had no power to change it.

Being mother to a deceased child is surreal in many ways. But for me, I am most bemused because I believe that Natan’s soul has gone on to divine wisdom while I only feel more and more at a loss for understanding. So in that way, our son, a being we created and wanted to nurture, has surpassed us in development. And I am confused by this world turned upside down.

What are you really trying to say?

If you look at my links, you’ll see I’ve included a “political” section and if you check out this week’s “Top 10 Conservative Idiots” you’ll see that a congressman in Tennessee has proposed requiring death certificates to be issued for aborted fetuses. The author of Top 10, Earl G, makes enough of the ridiculousness of this proposal that I don’t really need to do more. But my non-sophisticated un-philosophical response is that it’s mean-spirited. I am quickly learning about fear and guilt associated with fertility and childbearing and it seems the Tennessee measure’s intent is to shame women. Unable to successfully criminalize them, this legislator wants to create a public record of women who have abortions.

It caused me to reflect on my treatment at the hospital. Overall, the nurses and doctors were profoundly kind and compassionate. Thankfully they don’t see a situation like ours every day, but even still, they do see tragedy often and still they were sincere in their empathy and grief. During my week in the hospital, I went through every possible emotion. I felt guilt, like I must have done something wrong despite having spent months preparing my body for pregnancy and then following every guideline for making it a healthy one. In weak moments I felt ashamed at my apparent inability to easily accomplish such a “natural” task. (So much for the Fit Pregnancy magazine and Bradley Method to Natural Childbirth book I happily purchased in November. My subsequent pregnancies will involve bed rest, a throng of medical professionals, and probably a C-section.) I was so upset with myself at times that I was shocked by the medical staff’s concern for me, as well as our baby. Over and over they expressed that my life was their first priority, and reassured me that I was a good mother. Even as we all confronted the death of Natan, as the passing of a real person, I was struck by the care and compassion they expressed for me.

With the miscarriage, however, it was different. None of the medical personnel mourned the baby as a real person with a soul and an identity, and neither actually did I. I thought I did at the time, and I would never reduce the experience of miscarriage to simply a loss of tissue. As I waited for the fetus to pass, having chosen not to get a D&C if it wasn’t absolutely necessary, I spoke to it, telling it I would always love it, but that it was time to move on. I was distraught over losing the pregnancy, but I didn’t know that fetus like I knew Natan. I passed an 8.5-week fetus, and honestly I couldn’t discern much of a human form. The idea of a death certificate would be bizarre – we wouldn’t even know the sex and as we know the law doesn’t accept intersex as a category.

But let’s not get into that debate. Ultimately I am trying to discern why the Tennessee proposal angers me as a mother and why I relate it to my feelings of inadequacy and guilt over Natan’s death. Some of it, I think, is appropriate. I was his mother and I loved him. I wanted him in this world, even more than I wanted myself. Of course I’m heartbroken over losing him, and of course I think about the events leading up to labor. Of course I wish something could have been done to save his life, and will always have some “what ifs” in mind.

The shame, however, I think is reflected in much of the way women, fertility, pregnancy, and babies are presented in media and conversation. Why did I see so many pictures of Reese Witherspoon’s daughter, Kate Hudson’s son, and other celebrity kids in the US magazine I paged through this morning at the gym? Why can I not turn on television news programs without hearing about missing children, pregnancy fads, or pedophilia? We are baby obsessed in popular culture (academics please forgive me for not footnoting that phrase) and I think it has very little to do with true compassion for children. It’s narcissism. I love Natan infinitely, but it wasn’t only my love for him that made me excited when people out in public could tell I was pregnant. I liked the attention. But not in a healthy way. In the same way pride in my athletic body in high school turned into an unhealthy obsession when that became difficult to maintain in college, I realized I was putting too much value on a popularly represented body image. And that body image was of a baby-making machine. I am certainly not saying that a pregnant body isn’t beautiful and that the sight of a pregnant woman shouldn’t make us happy or that we should not be concerned about the welfare of babies and children. But when we portray motherhood as the be all and end all of a woman’s life, we ultimately devalue life. We cheapen the experience of pregnancy by making it a universal commodity, something we all must do and have. And we say that if a woman cannot achieve it or does not want it, she has failed.

When we obsess over childhood and children, we create impossible norms. If you care about your children’s well being, do you subject them to constant scrutiny? Do you comment on everything they do, say, and wear? Do you make them play out their personal pain in front of everyone you know? If every moment of your every day is spent chronicling every detail of your children’s lives, are you really thinking first about them, or about yourself?

The Tennessee proposal reflects this shame. Death certificates for fetuses have nothing to do with individual children, with increasing their real chances for life or for improving its quality. It doesn’t even have anything to do with reducing the incidence of abortion. It has everything to do with portraying motherhood as the norm, and with ignoring diverse experience that complicates it.